Leahy Lays Out Lofty Agenda for Judiciary

Posted February 9, 2009 at 6:01pm

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday outlined an aggressive agenda for the 111th Congress, including the creation of a “truth and reconciliation” commission to investigate alleged violations of federal and international law by the Bush administration, passage of hate crimes legislation and approval of President Barack Obama’s executive and judicial branch nominees.

Leahy outlined the priorities at a speech at Georgetown University. Atop the list: legislation to create a commission similar to those used in war-torn areas such as South Africa.

The commission would have broad subpoena and immunity powers, but it would not have the authority to issue indictments, and its findings could not be used against participants in legal proceedings. The commission is designed “not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments but to assemble the truth,” Leahy said.

Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have said they would like to avoid revisiting the ugly partisan battles that marked George W. Bush’s eight years in office. But the duo has committed to investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the previous administration.

As expected, Leahy’s proposal for an independent commission to investigate the Bush administration touched a partisan nerve, with Republicans denouncing the proposal as a political witch hunt.

“No good purpose is served by continuing to persecute those who served in the previous Administration. President Obama promised to usher in an era of ‘change’ and bipartisan harmony. Unfortunately, the continued effort by some Democrats to unjustly malign former Bush Administration officials is politics as usual,” House Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a statement afterward.

But during his speech, Leahy argued that it is Republicans who have been playing politics with Bush’s legacy, noting that Judiciary Committee Republicans pressed Holder, during his confirmation hearing, to agree to not seek indictments of former administration officials.

Republicans “tried to concoct a devil’s bargain for their votes,” Leahy said, defending his truth commission proposal as a “fair-minded pursuit of what happened.”

Leahy’s commission initiative tops a long list of agenda items he hopes to tackle in the coming months.

In addition to holding confirmation hearings on Obama’s other Department of Justice picks, the Judiciary Committee will begin the contentious process of confirming the president’s federal court nominees this spring.

Leahy did not discuss judicial nominations in detail during Monday’s speech. But he did say he has spoken to Obama about future Supreme Court appointees, making clear he would like more women and minorities to find their way onto the high court.

Other issues high on Leahy’s agenda include judicial pay legislation, a review of expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, patent law reform, corruption and fraud legislative reform, hate crimes legislation and freedom of information and media shield measures, among other items.

Leahy also said the Judiciary Committee will be heavily involved in Obama’s efforts to rebuild the Department of Justice in the wake of the internal scandals that plagued the agency during the Bush era. Leahy said he will be “seeking accountability for what happened in the past,” particularly in the Office of Legal Counsel.